AMAZING  STORIES  from  the  past

The Mahdi -  a holy warrior  in the Sudan

Mohammed Ahmed el-Sayyid Abdullah was not the first or the last to claim the title of Mahdi, or Chosen One - but his meteoric career certainly left its stamp on history.

Unjust and corrupt Egyptian rule and growing discontent among the ordinary people prepared the ground in 19th-century Sudan for the coming of an Islamic Messiah as prophesied in the Koran.

Mohammed Ahmed el-Sayyid Abdullah came from nowhere to lead a victorious jihad (holy war) against his country's oppressors. His career reached its apogee with the fall of Khartoum, in 1885, an event in European eyes more notable for the tragic death of the celebrated British Major-General Charles Gordon, or Gordon Pasha, who fell leading the defence of the capital. For the next 13 years, the theocratic regime established by the Mahdi and his successor maintained Sudanese independence until a well-equipped Anglo-Egyptian force defeated the hitherto invincible Mahdist hordes at Omdurman in 1898.


The story began many decades earlier, in 1821, when the Egyptians started to expand deep into Sudan, extending the area under their control to almost as far south as the Equator. The colonization brought misery and discontent. In the north, farmers were driven to bankruptcy by high taxes, but when they moved south to try trading in ivory and slaves, they fared no better. Under pressure from Europe, the Egyptians suppressed the slave trade, while ensuring that they enjoyed rich pickings from ivory dealing. Even worse for many Sudanese, they began to bring in Westerners to fill key positions in their administration.

The most notable of these was Charles Gordon, who had been governor of the southern province of Equatoria until ill-health forced him to resign. But within a few months he returned as Governor General of the entire country. He was a reformer whom many Sudanese came to admire, but he could do nothing to quell their intense and growing hatred of the Egyptians.

Revolt was in the air: what it needed was a leader. The man who filled the role was Mohammed Ahmed. From 1871, inspired by the memory of his great grandfather, a respected religious leader, he journeyed through Sudan, preaching an end to Egyptian rule and a return to the values set out in the Koran. Gradually he recruited an army of fanatical followers until, ten years later, he was ready to proclaim himself the Mahdi. His sheer charisma overcame the tribal divisions that until then had prevented any chance of unity. Under the banner of jihad, the Mahdi and his forces began a triumphant progress.


The news finally stirred the Egyptians into action, but the first troops sent out from Khartoum to arrest the Mahdi withdrew in confusion at the strength of the opposition. A second force, and then a third was hacked to pieces. When the 6000-strong garrison of El-Obeid capitulated in early 1883, the south was completely cut off from Khartoum. With no prospect of supplies and reinforcements, it was a matter of time before the governors of the isolated provinces would be forced to surrender.

By now/the British were heavily involved in Egypt, having intervened to put down a nationalist revolt. But they refused to intervene in the Upper Nile, so the Egyptians were left to fend for themselves. They assembled a 15,000-strong army under Colonel William Hicks and marched south. Guides who had gone over to the Mahdi led Hicks and his men to a grim fate. Exhausted and dying of thirst, they were encircled and massacred. Only 300 escaped. Hicks himself fell on the battlefield.

The Egyptian position in Sudan was now desperate. The Mahdi marched north on Khartoum itself, while, still determined to avoid open involvement, the British decided on a total withdrawal. Gordon was sent back to Khartoum to organise the evacuation. But, believing that he had a moral duty to protect loyal Egyptians and Sudanese, he prepared instead to defend the capital, convinced thgfpublic opinion at home would force the despatch of a relief force in time to save the situation.


The siege that followed lasted for ten months. Towards the end of the year, food supplies ran out. The Nile was falling and one side of the city was now open to attack. On January 5, 1885, the Mahdi ordered a final assault. Within six hours Khartoum had fallen. Massacre, rape and looting followed. Among the victims was Gordon himself. He, against the Mahdi's express orders, was speared to death on the staircase of the governor's palace, his head cut off, and his body thrown down a well.

Just two days later, the advance guard of the Anglo-Egyptian relief force ran into a hail of hostile fire and turned back down the Nile. Lord Wolesley, the British commander-in-chief in Egypt, ordered a complete withdrawal. At home, William Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister who had dispatched Gordon to Egypt, was booed and hissed by a mob at Downing Street. A furious Queen Victoria telegraphed: 'To think that all this might have been prevented and many precious lives saved by earlier action is too fearful.' Gladstone's soubriquet of GOM (Grand Old Man) was swiftly transformed into MOG (Murderer of Gordon).


The Mahdi did not live long to savour his victory. He died of typhus just six months after the fall of Khartoum. Some said it was a punishment from God for having taken Gordon's life. The task of establishing a government fell to his deputies - the three caliphs chosen in emulation of the prophet Muhammad. In 1891, Abdallahi ibn Muhammad emerged as the undisputed leader and named himself the Khalifa (successor).

The regime survived until 1898, when the British sent another Anglo-Egyptian force. It was commanded by General Sir Herbert Kitchener who had served in Wolesley's expedition 13 years before and learned much from the disaster. Battle was joined on September 1, 1898, outside Omdurman. Some 8000 British regulars and 17,000 Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers took on the Khalifa's 50,000-strong army. Despite the charges of wave after wave of fanatical dervishes, superior Anglo-Egyptian firepower led to their complete rout in just a few hours - the battle started around dawn and finished at about 11.30 in the morning. The Khalifa escaped but perished in battle the following year.

The British triumph was complete. Barbarously, they dug up the Mahdi's corpse and threw it into the Nile. Yet what he had achieved during his relatively brief career could not be banished from history. Indeed, his memory still lives on in Islam today.



Keith Hunt